In July, at the Local Government Association Annual Conference, the Government announced its plan for more devolved powers to local government, however, this announcement was made in conjunction with local government reorganisation. Simon Clarke, in particular, focused on his own experience in a devolved region and how people in local government needed to be empowered. He argued that councils best understand the priorities in their individual areas, particularly with regard to COVID-19. Many took this briefing to mean devolution was conditional on reorganisation.
This view was further bolstered by the publication of an independent report by PwC in August. The County Councils Network published the report which asserted that removal of the current two-tier council system, replaced with single countywide unitary authorities would deliver up savings of £2.94 billion over a five-year period. They also concluded that single unitary authorities would reduce the complexities arising from a two-tier system.
Taken together the above reinforced the conclusion that councils in two-tiered areas were going to be asked to form unitary authorities to be able to enjoy devolved powers, effectively abolishing the two-tier system.
Whilst some councils were in support of reorganisation and actively submitted proposals for their areas others were vocal in their belief that now is not the right time for reorganisation. With COVID-19 still at the forefront, they believe that any consideration of reorganisation would detract from the need to prevent the damage the pandemic is inevitably causing.
Further interest was sparked by the resignation of local government minister Simon Clarke in early September. Clarke had been seen to be spearheading this change, leaving many to ask what the government’s position on devolution and reorganisation would now be. He strongly believed that the best way for national recovery was paved by local government who understood the individual challenges in their community.
News over the last few weeks has suggested that the White Paper has been pushed back again to next year and that the changes to be implemented by it will not be as radical as originally anticipated.
This has been additionally supported by the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick’s statement in the House of Commons on the 12 October. This detailed that the Government will not be imposing a top-down restructuring of local government which forces councils to form unitary authorities. Instead the Government’s approach will continue to follow locally-led proposals for forming unitary authorities; only where councils themselves recommend reorganisation, which is strongly supported, will the Government consider making changes.
Consequently, the Government has issued invitations to three counties to create unitary authorities. Those being North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Somerset where there is already strong support for unitarisation.
Whilst this seems to be a u-turn from Simon Clarke’s approach, it provides comfort to many councils to know that reorganisation will not be forced on them in order to achieve devolved powers.
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The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at October 2020.